Bukit Ho Swee Fire

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Bukit Ho Swee Fire displaces 16,000 householdsThe Bukit Ho Swee fire claimed the lives of four while displacing some 16,000 from their homes and livelihood. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Bukit Ho Swee Fire
On 25 May 1961, a massive fire raged through the Bukit Ho Swee estate, destroying schools, shops, factories and attap houses across a 100-acre area. The fire claimed four fatalities and left some 16,000 kampong dwellers homeless.  The displacement of families would prove to be a key moment in the development of modern Singapore, paving the way for a massive shift towards the Government’s public housing programme.
Firefighters putting out the fire in Bukit Ho SweeFor many of the firefighters, attempts to put out the fire in the early stages were hampered by low fire hydrant pressures and the congestion of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

Kampong Bukit Ho Swee was part of the precinct bordered by Kampong Tiong Bahru. Initially sparsely inhabited, its population grew from 2,772 in 1948 to 19,017 in 1957.

On 24 May 1961 at 3.30pm, a fire broke out on a hillside squatter district in Kampong Tiong Bahru Road. Consuming combustible squatter huts, the fire spread throughout Bukit Ho Swee, intensified by winds and petroleum products from the nearby godowns that literally added fuel to the fire.

A total of about 180 fireman, 20 officers, 22 fire engines and nearly 1,000 army personnel were deployed to battle the fire and aid in crowd-control, many of whom had to be recalled as it was the Hari Raya Haji public holiday. Despite the presence of 22 fire engines, Firefighters struggled to put of the fire due to low water pressure from hydrants and the dense layout of the kampong. It was only after the last few huts were razed to the ground that the fire was eventually brought under control as it made its way to the open space along Ganges Avenue.
President Yusof Ishak visits Bukit Ho SweeYang Di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak visiting site of the Bukit Ho Swee Fire on 26 May 1961. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)

The flames had devastated an area of around 250 acres (approximately 93 soccer fields). A school, a coffee mill, two oil mills, two junk shops, two tyre shops, three timber yards, three motor workshops and four lives were lost. Around 2,800 houses were destroyed and nearly 16,000 people were left homeless. Victims of the fire were temporarily housed in five schools along Kim Seng Road, which would serve as relief centres fronted by members of the Red Cross, Military Forces and other volunteer organisations.

Relief for the displaced residents included the delivery of some 6,000 blankets and 3,000 mattresses, the setup of gas, electrical and water supplies, as well as the presence of some 1,500 policemen to prevent looting. Numerous operations were also conducted to help bury animal carcasses in deep trenches, and to allow victims to recover their belongings under strict police supervision.

Two days after the fire, the Bukit Ho Swee Fire National Relief Fund Committee was setup by then Minister for Labour and Law K.M. Byrne. In total, the committee raised a sum of $1,586,422.16 for those affected by the fire. 

The shift towards Public Housing
To help in the building of homes to rehouse those affected by the fire, the Government moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly that allowed them to acquire the fire site for redevelopment into a low-cost housing area, thereby amending the Land Acquisition Ordinance Act that gave the government more leverage in acquiring such sites to pursue their goal of public housing.

The first phase, known as “Operation Shift” saw the relocation of about 6,000 people to 1,150 flats in new estates such as Queenstown, Tiong Bahru and Kallang. By February 1962, all remaining families were successfully rehoused.

Five years later, in 1967, 12,562 flats were built on the site of the Bukit Ho Swee fire. In a census conducted in 1970, the estate was home to 45,066 residents, a majority of whom were former residents of Kampong Bukit Ho Swee.
Rebuilding Bukit Ho SweeArtist Tan Choo Kuan depicts the rebuilding of Bukit Ho Swee, this time with concrete public housing units. (c.1962. Image from National Museum of Singapore, Gift of Ms Tan Teng Teng)

Ong Kim Seng's image of Beo CrescentA watercolour painting of Beo Crescent, one of the estates created after the Bukit Ho Swee fire as depicted by renowned Singaporean watercolourist Ong Kim Seng. (c.2008. Image from National Museum of Singapore)